Having kids does not have to mean an 18 year moratorium on eating out. With some planning and ingenuity families can eat out without going broke or insane. My husband and I love eating out (especially on Friday night, which makes the whole weekend seem longer), and have persisted in doing so even since the birth of our first daughter seven years ago and continue to dine out regularly with both girls.
Choose Family-Friendly Restaurants
When choosing family friendly settings, this does not mean consigning the family to restaurants with talking mice and kids' menus. Some of our favorite dining spots are Thai, Indian and Mexican restaurants where the kids eat the same food we do (I can only stand feeding my kids so much Macaroni and Grilled Cheese).
But to keep it fun for the family and for other diners, consider the time and place. I don't take my kids out to romantic restaurants on Valentine's Day, where other diners would have every right to give my kids the stink eye. But you'd better plan on paying more than $8 a meal to cast me a dirty look simply because you don't appreciate overhearing my kids chatter in the next booth. We let our kids know that we need to respect the experience of other diners, but it's important to remember that kids have the same rights as every other diner in a restaurant and that every table may occasionally overrun its boundaries now and then.
Eating earlier and/or at less expensive restaurants (also great for the pocketbook), while not necessarily at restaurants "traditionally" targeting kids is a great place to start.
Restaurant Activities for Kids
Many kid-friendly restaurants provide crayons and coloring activities. But for those that don't (or if this lasts about 2 minutes with your kids, like with mine), there's lots of other activities to keep kids busy while waiting for food. For babies, look for sanitary high chair covers (they fit most standard restaurant high chairs) that have toy clips or loops (we had one of these for each of our daughters, see my link below).
For toddlers and school-aged kids a deck of cards (think Go Fish, War or Uno), travel games like Chinese Checkers or Yahtzee (that can be put away to finish later when the food comes), inexpensive magnetic tableaus featuring dolls, trucks or other themes or even just small plastic animal or dolls are great choices. I try to avoid toys that talk or have built-in travel implications (little cars, for example, that may want to travel beyond the seat or table). My new favorite are bendable wax sticks (generally sold as Wikki Stix or Bendaroos, see link below), that can be made into shapes, animals, jewelry or other creatures or stuck harmlessly to tables, placemats or more.
Rush the Kid Food
If your kids are slow eaters like mine, when ordering let the waiter know that it's not necessary to hold the kids food until the whole order is ready. In fact, it's often possible to rush the kids' order. If, alternatively, the kids suck down their food and then get bored, either bring along or ask for some crackers, apples or carrots that the kids can snack on lightly until the food arrives, to avoid hearing "I'm starving!!".
Ask for the Check Early
The most stressful part of a meal out with the kids is usually the end. The kids are done eating, they're tired of being confined and the server is nowhere to be found. When they do arrive, they are asking about dessert (ha!) and then it takes another 5 minutes (the longest 5 minutes of your life) for it to arrive, and possibly more to pay if using a credit card.
An invaluable trick to not regretting a formerly fun evening is to ask for the check when the food arrives. If there will be dessert, then ask for the check to be totaled at the same time the dessert order is placed. Settle the check as soon as it arrives and that way, as soon as everyone is done, or if things start to fall apart, it's easy to just walk out the door.
Those are my top tricks for having an enjoyable night out with the family. Here's a couple links below to the high chair cover and wax stick products I mentioned above that have helped keep me sane over the years.